Her uncle’s backyard was as iconic as a Norman Rockwell painting: hamburgers on the grill, and red, white, and blue on every table and chair. It was the brink of dusk, and Reilly hung back by the gate, letting herself rest in a bubble of solitary peace for just a moment more. Her baby cousins played with snappers and sidewalk chalk on the cement patio while her aunts and uncles drank from red solo cups. Fairy lights and lightning bugs lit the yard as games of corn hole, ladders, and beer pong filled the party with shouts of laughter and gentle heckling. Reilly wished she could sit here, by the gate, with her canvas and paints. But she didn’t paint anymore, and she couldn’t do it justice, anyway.
“Reilly Rabbit, Reilly Rabbit!” someone cried. Reilly flinched at the childhood nickname but smiled just the same. Annette, her baby cousin, barrelled into her legs and clung. Reilly shuffle-stepped and ruffled Annette’s hair, and Annette giggled uncontrollably.
“She’s going to need those legs back some time,” her Aunt Sam said. Annette ducked her head and giggled again, but she let go and ran back to the other cousins. Aunt Sam smiled at Annette’s retreating figure and then enveloped Reilly in a tight hug. “It’s been a long year of not seeing you, kiddo.”
Reilly didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing at all. She hugged her aunt back and smiled at her as they pulled away.
“Let’s get some food into you,” she said, heading to a table filled with burgers from the grill, various assortments of potato and pasta salads, and more slices of watermelon than people.
Reilly followed, but her aunt waved her away. “Nuh-uh. Last year you came back with one scoop of pasta salad and a chocolate chip cookie. I’ll make your plate and you just sit down next to your Uncle James.”
Acquiescing, she made her way to a circle of fold-out lawn chairs, sliding unannounced into the one next to her Uncle James. He smiled at her but didn’t pester her as Aunt Sam would. Reilly guessed that he had just taken a break from the grill since his apron was on and he had a spatula in one hand. Since he talked with his hands, Reilly eyed the grease-speckled spatula with caution.
It was hard to look at Uncle James–to look at any of them. But Uncle James especially. He was a spitting image of her dad, but fast-forwarded by eight years. She saw her dad in all of them: his nose was on her cousin Layla, his lips on her Aunt Sam. His ears had folded just like her cousin Blake’s did, and his freckles had been just as proliferated as her Uncle David’s. She was surrounded.
Reilly forced herself to sit back more in her chair. Her aunts and uncles were in the middle of gossiping about some distant cousin who was currently in jail in Minnesota. The pace of the conversation swept her up, and mercifully, no one commented on her presence. Their voices lulled her, and her feelings of absolute dread about that day turned to comforting acceptance.
She had always loved her Uncle James’ yard. Up until her dad died three years ago, she spent more time here than at her own house. He had garden beds full of vegetables, four different types of berrying bushes, real live chickens, and her absolute favorite: her uncle’s prized English Angora rabbits. The rabbit hutch took up a considerable amount of the yard and was in immaculate condition. It was more like a barn full of rabbits than a rabbit hutch, but that was too long to say. In Reilly’s waking memory, he always had between five to seven of these rabbits looking like giant balls of fluff and showed them competitively. Reilly had shown them, too. First at state and county fairs, and then at exhibitions with some considerable cashouts. But she didn’t do that anymore, either. She would always have a sweet spot for Pepper, though. She and Pepper had won three exhibitions and more fairs than she could count. Pepper was as sweet and cuddly as a puppy and more than half the reason why she still made her yearly visits to her dad’s side. Reilly figured she’d only have to sit and talk for another ninety minutes before she could disappear and spend the rest of the night at the rabbit hutch.
“Here you go, Reilly,” her Aunt Sam said, handing her a heaping plate of food and a brimming cup of diet coke.
“Thank you.” Her Aunt Sam plopped into the chair next to hers and raised her eyebrows until Reilly dug in. She bit into the hamburger, taking care to avoid the cesspool of ketchup that Aunt Sam had put on the plate. It looked too much like blood.
“So y’all are out her gossiping about our despicable cousin instead of talking to our darling Reilly?”
Reilly choked mid-chew at her Aunt Sam’s words. She coughed until her eyes watered. A glass of water appeared in front of her face. She drank it while her Aunt Sam patted her back.
“See what you’ve done?” Her Uncle Max’s eyes sparkled. “We were giving her time to settle in, and you almost made her choke to death.”
Aunt Sam’s eyes were daggers. “Watch it,” she hissed.
Her Uncle Max’s eyes went wide, and he looked down, taking an extra interest in his plate of food.
“So how was your first year, Reilly? Can’t believe you’re going into your sophomore year already.” Her Uncle James always knew how to save the day.
“I know, me neither.” Reilly went to the state college three hours away and was majoring in art history. Her plan was to get into an art conservation program for grad school. “It’s going well. I’ve made some good friends, and I like my classes.”
“Glad to hear it, kiddo.” His smile was wide and toothy, just like her dad’s.
“What are you majoring in, again?” Her Aunt Lorraine asked. She was the oldest of her dad’s four siblings, and she was looking frailer by the day.
“Art history,” Reilly replied, smiling at her. Aunt Lorraine looked like a catalog girl from the fifties, complete with the cat-eye glasses.
“For some reason, I thought you were either going to be doing pre-vet stuff or majoring in painting,” Aunt Lorraine said, not unkindly.
“Oh, I don’t paint anymore, Aunt Lorraine,” she said, ignoring the vet comment altogether. Reilly’s chest tightened, and her hands threatened to shake, but she took another bite of her burger instead.
“You were always so good, though, dear. I know your dad would be proud of you, no matter what you’re majoring in.”
Reilly learned a long time ago that grief would never go away, it just fluctuated. At her aunt’s words, her chest tightened and she felt like she was falling. “Thank you,” she said, looking down at her plate of food.
Aunt Sam squeezed her arm. “We miss him, too, sweetie.”
A tremor rattled through Reilly’s hands. Along with grief came the guilt and shame. She set her plate down on the ground rather than spill it. Willing the tremor to stop, she squeezed her hands together.
Aunt Sam threw a pointed look in the direction of her other relatives. Met with silence, Aunt Sam shook her head. “How’s your mom doing, Reilly?”
“She’s good. She’s been picking up extra shifts at the hospital.” Her mom was a nurse practitioner.
“I do miss seeing her,” Aunt Lorraine said.
“You know she spends the fourth with Peter’s family.” Peter was her step-dad. All things considered, he was a good guy.
“I’m aware.” Aunt Lorraine straightened out her dress and looked to Uncle Max to save her. Uncle Max looked far away, his eyes glossy.
The silence was as heavy as the humid Fourth of July air around them. And it was all because of her. A too-early firework went off in the distance, its pop and fizz no louder than a car backfiring. Reilly jumped at the sound, upending the drink in her cup holder. Diet coke splattered on her sandals, the seeping cold warring against the pervasive humidity.
“I’m so sorry.” She scrambled for her cup, her whole body shaking now. She almost missed the holder as she set the empty cup back inside of it. She couldn’t trust her hands. Couldn’t trust herself.
“Don’t you worry about a spilled drink dear. I’ll get some napkins,” Aunt Lorraine said.
She wanted to say something, anything, from making this once-a-year-reunion a bust. “Um,” she grappled, “How are the rabbits doing?” she said, looking to her Uncle James.
He froze, his stillness akin to a statue’s. His eyes looked a little shinier than usual.
He shook his head, a twin gesture to her father’s. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Reilly.”
She squeezed her hands together. “What?”
“Have you heard of that rabbit disease going around, RHDV2?”
She shook her head. Her vision tunneled, blacking out at the sides. She hadn’t kept up with anything from this part of her life since the car accident.
“It’s a hemorrhagic disease.”
He was drawing it out, a thread unwinding from a stitch. “It’s killing wild rabbits.”
He paused. Reilly wanted to hold her hands out to stop the words.
“And it’s killing domestic rabbits, too.”
She shook her head again and bit her lip. “No.”
“I’m so sorry, Reilly, I thought it hadn’t gotten here, yet. I was going to move them into the basement for a while until it blew over. A wild rabbit must have gotten into the hutch. Lemon got sick last week. Fever, wasn’t eating, breathing hard. So we took her in. It was RHDV2.”
Reilly curled her arms around herself, still shaking her head. She wanted to hold her ears. This was too much.
“We’ve got to put them all down tomorrow. I’m so sorry,” he said again. “I know this is the last thing you wanted to hear during your yearly visit,” he said, quieter.
She stood and wiped her eyes. “I’m gonna go.”
She turned and ran across the three-acre lot, being careful not to trip where there was more darkness than fairy lights. She slipped, her sandals still wet. Her cousins stepped aside from their lawn games as she went. Anyone else would’ve been laughed at for being so dramatic, but no one went dared to poke or prod at her running figure. She would look into the hutch and say goodbye and leave and never go on this side of town again if she could help it.
The hutch was a beautiful brown wood with white trim. Part of the hutch was wire, so the rabbits could smell and look at the world around them while being in complete safety from predators. A ramp took them to a small-looking barn where they could nest and rest and hop around.
She collapsed next to the hutch, sobs escaping. Curious noses pressed against the side of the cage. Being English Angora rabbits, they were more fluffy than most dogs. Reilly could detect nothing wrong with them. It could’ve been a show day for all she could tell.
One rabbit separated from the curious noses. She binkied, a jump and a twist, before landing and pressed a little closer to the siding. Her coloring was just a little darker than the rest. “Oh, Pepper.” She opened the hutch door slowly, picked up Pepper, and closed it before any rabbits could escape.
Pepper nestled into her neck and Reilly curled up against the hutch. It was completely dark now. A distant thought struck her: the fireworks would start soon.
Pepper had gotten Reilly through the painful years of high school. They had done dozens of shows together, along with her dad. She would’ve had a few good more years in her.
Quiet but heavy footsteps neared. Reilly didn’t have to open her eyes to know it was her Uncle James.
“I feel like I’m losing him again.”
“It’s not fair.”
“It’s also not fair to punish yourself, Reilly. It’s not your fault.”
Tears poked at her eyes as another sob loosed itself from her chest.
“I was the one driving. It’s all my fault.”
He sat down next to her. “Are these rabbits getting sick my fault?”
“No, of course not.”
“But I should’ve known. I should’ve kept them safe. And I didn’t.”
“You couldn’t know what was going to happen.”
“Exactly. And the car accident wasn’t your fault, either.”
She didn’t know what to say, if there was anything she could even say. Sparklers came to life from across the lawn, haloing the faces of her family. Her father in each one of them.
“Please don’t disappear again. I can’t lose you, too.”
“I won’t.” She took a deep breath. She wasn’t sure if she could say the words, but she forced them out. “Can I come back and help tomorrow?”
Her uncle put a hand on her shoulder and nodded, wordless. But his eyes betrayed his gratitude.
A hiss and a bang filled the air. Reilly held Pepper close to her chest as the sky erupted. In the whites of her rabbit’s eyes, all she could see was red.